How to Tune a Guitar
Updated: Dec 1, 2019
Tune your guitar to E-A-D-G-B-E (going from the biggest string to the smallest). The easiest way to do this is with an electronic guitar tuner. Alternatively, you can use the relative tuning method, where the open A is tuned to the 5th fret of the E-string, the open D is tuned to the 5th fret of the A-string, and so on, using the following fret numbers: 5-5-5-4-5 (see video below).
The ProHowNow Way: Make Your Life Easier with an Electronic Guitar Tuner
First thing before tuning your guitar, you need to know what each string is. Starting from the 6th string (the one with the largest diameter, AKA the top string) and going down to the 1st string, they are E-A-D-G-B-E. This is what’s called Standard Tuning. There are various other guitar tunings, such as drop D and open C, but this is the most common one.
The easiest way to tune a guitar is with an electric tuner, which you can find in a variety of styles:
Clip-on tuner: popular and versatile, these work for both acoustic and electric guitars (and most other stringed instruments) by clipping onto the headstock and detecting vibrations
Metronome-style tuner: a bit out of style after the arrival of clip-on tuners, but these include a built-in microphone and a ¼” guitar jack input to work with both acoustic and electric guitars, and, as the name suggests, they typically have a built-in metronome, making them ideal for practicing
Pedal tuner: meant to be used in-line for a guitar playing through an amplifier, these can be used alongside other guitar pedals, ideal for gigging guitarists
Mobile phone tuning apps: these are convenient to have in a pinch, but limited because they rely on the built-in microphone on your phone and only work if you’re playing an acoustic guitar or have your electric guitar playing through an amp
Whichever type of tuner you pick, the method of tuning is the same. Start by playing the 6th string, or the top string. There is usually a needle or series of lights that tell you when you’re too low or too high. When it’s in tune, it will light up right in the middle.
If the note is flat (too low), turn the tuning peg for the string so as to tighten the string up to the proper pitch. If the note is sharp (too high), loosen the string until it goes down to the proper pitch.
Once you’ve tuned the first string, move on to the next one and do the same thing for all six strings. If the guitar is drastically out of pitch to start off, you’ll likely need to tune all the strings all and then repeat the process. This is because the tension of the strings causes the neck to bend. A great example is if a guitar has been sitting in a hot car or garage for a few hours. The strings will go way flat (because heat makes things expand, including guitar strings). By time you bring all six strings up to pitch, the tension will have bent the neck inward a bit more, and the first string you tuned will be a little flat again.
Tuning with the Relative Tuning Method
If you don’t have a tuner handy, no biggie, you can use the relative tuning method. In fact, this is a great method for training your ear as a musician, although it can be tedious and frustrating if you’re just starting.
Ideally, you’ll want to tune the 6th string (the large diameter E string) by ear to the corresponding note on a piano or tuning fork or even another guitar that you know is in tune. If neither of those are available, turn the tuning peg until the E string sounds good to your ear, or hell, tune it to the opening notes of just about any popular rock song that’s in the key of E or E minor, including Born to Be Wild, Whole Lotta Love, Enter Sandman, and Lonely Boy.
Once you have the E string tuned to where you want it, you’re now going to use that as your reference point for the A string. Press down on the 5th fret of the E string, pluck that string, then pluck the A string and adjust the turning peg until the two notes match in pitch.
Now you’ll use the A string as a reference to tune the D string. Same process as before: press on the 5th fret of the A string, pluck it, and tune the D string to the corresponding pitch.
Same deal for the G string—use the 5th fret of the D string as reference.
The B string is the only wonky one. You’ll want to fret the G string on the 4th fret as your reference this time.
With the 1st string (the high E string), use the 5th fret of the B string as a reference again. The fretting pattern looks like this:
ProHowNow Tip: Always Tune Strings Up to Pitch
Many guitarists get their guitar into tune only to have it go out of whack once they start playing. Oftentimes, this is caused by a string getting hung up in the guitar nut during the tuning process and then coming loose while playing, making the string go flat.
To reduce the odds of this happening, use the following technique for each guitar string while tuning:
Turn the tuning peg so the string goes a little flat of the target pitch, and then bring it back up to pitch.
If you accidentally bring the pitch up too much and go sharp, start over and turn the peg until the string goes flat again before tuning it up to pitch. By tuning up to pitch, you’re minimizing the chances of the string getting hung up in the nut since you’re adding tension to it. When going in the opposite direction—tuning a string down—there is less tension being applied and the string is liable to hang up until your start strumming the guitar hard or bending a note.
That's all you need to know. Tune your axe up and get to rocking!